How did Arsenal not win this match? Actually scratch that. How did Arsenal not win this match 6-3, or at the very least end up drawing it? This is not a rhetorical question. There is an answer. The main reason this didn’t happen and why instead Manchester United were able to extract a stirring, ruthlessly executed 3-1 away win is because David de Gea produced a performance of relentless brilliance in goal.
For an hour at the Emirates, as Arsenal surged back from the indignity of conceding a 2-0 deficit, De Gea was a one-man spider’s web, leaping and tumbling and spreading his limbs with startling grace and agility to keep Arsenal at bay.
Most notably there was a mind-boggling double-save 11 minutes into the second half, De Gea plunging with whip-crack speed to get a hand to Alexandre Lacazette’s low shot, then leaping up to deflect Alexis Sánchez’s follow-up over the bar.
This was goalkeeping that seemed to bend the normal physical rules, that defied any sense of reasonable cause and effect. As De Gea ambled off to retrieve the ball Arsenal’s players looked genuinely pained not to have scored, ready to appeal, fruitlessly, to the referee, or the fourth official, or God.
Except at the Emirates God was wearing a turquoise shirt and playing in goal for the visitors. With United 2-0 up early on, there was a brilliant first-half save from Lacazette that almost got lost in the scramble, De Gea showing bravery and outstanding reflexes to deflect the ball up on to the bar from point-blank range.
Shortly afterwards he produced something just as hair-raising. Romelu Lukaku, defending in extremis at the back post, propelled the ball towards his own goal off a shin. De Gea leapt, adjusted in mid air and clawed it away with the spatial awareness of an Olympic diver.
Afterwards Arsène Wenger mused on fairness in football, but was honest enough to put the blame for defeat on his own players’ lack of ruthlessness. Plus, of course, goalkeepers have always been the most deceptive of random elements in football. A good or bad goalkeeper skews and remakes the narrative, just as here De Gea’s brilliance helped turn a dominant performance from Arsenal into a home team picked off with surgical brilliance on the break.